a death of my unconscious

My friend Melinda McDonald, reading my post of yesterday, a World AIDS Day tribute (reposted from December 1, 2016), really, a poem in commemoration of my brother Wayne and his courageous facing of his dying and death at the insidious hand of AIDS, wrote to me, in part: How you have been formed in the refining fires of love and loss and grief. These are what make us what we are, hopefully better and more pure of heart.

On this morning’s reflection, I realize that I read her words as a question – How have you been formed in the refining fires of love and loss and grief? – and recognize the irony that Melinda’s comment stirred and brought to light (to life?) something, a thought, an idea that, doubtless, for some time, since Wayne’s death in 1995, had lain in the recesses of my unconscious. That is, what happens after people die; not only to them, but for those who live on?(1)

I responded to Melinda, writing (again, now it is clear to me something I had been pondering unawares, but now, due to her gracious word, has died to my unconscious, flowering fully in the light and life of my consciousness): Wayne’s death has taught me that grief – though, yes, there are stages – has no end. I will mourn his death until I die. Something else I believe I have learned… I used to think that when a person died s/he remained frozen in time (that is, as s/he was at the time of death) in the memories of living loved ones. In Wayne’s case, I, amazingly, have discerned that he has continued to be and to become – perhaps, yes, as I would have imagined and envisioned his development; nevertheless, o’er the years, I have heard him speaking to me of things in my ongoing experience. Perhaps, for me, this is proof, tho’, by faith, I need it not, of the life everlasting.

Thank you, Melinda. Thank you, Wayne. Thank you, God.

Wayne & me

Footnote:

(1) In this, I think of the Apostle Paul’s grand assurance to the living both about those who have died and those who live on: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18).

Photograph: Wayne and me, c. 1956/7

Advertisements

freed from fear…imagine

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.14-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Jesus tells a parable about talents. In his day, monetary units of precious metal equal to fifteen years’ wages of a day laborer. For our day, the root of our notion of our capabilities, our talents that enable us to do something.

Viewed through the worldly lens of economics, this story is about our stewardship of our abilities and our money; using them fully, investing them wisely for which we, at life’s end, will give a reckoning through our legacies and bequests.

Hmmm, maybe.

From a heavenly perspective, this story is about our faithful use of divine gifts, as Paul delineates in First Corinthians,(1) among them, faith and discernment, knowledge and wisdom, bestowed by the Spirit, which we are to use for the sake of others and for which we must give an account at the end of time, the Day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus of which Paul speaks.(2)

Hmmm, maybe.

Today, focusing on two of the four characters, I suggest that this parable is about an elemental aspect of our relationships, all of our relationships, with God and with all others. Not the first two servants, who invest and double their money, make the same speech to their master, who, with the same words, praises and rewards them. They function as literary foils like Romeo and Juliet’s Friar whose patience magnifies Romeo’s impatience or Mr. Hyde whose evil illumines the goodness of Dr. Jekyll or the malevolent Draco Malfoy to the benevolent Harry Potter. The first two servants, in their exacting similarity, highlight the utterly different relationship of the master and the third servant; who, suffering from a case of fiscal paralysis, buries and returns the money.

Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

There is the point of the parable, which, though it may seem, is not a judgment against laziness, but rather is about fear.

FEAR - Scrabble tiles

The third servant imagined that his master was unkind. “I knew you were harsh, so I was afraid.” And acting on his fear, “I hid your talent and here it is.” The master replies, “You knew, did you, that I am as you imagine? If so, then you should have done otherwise.”

The point. Whatever we imagine about God and anyone else will influence our behavior. Speaking for myself, if I imagine God or you to be judgmental, I will be afraid and, in my fear, remain guarded, reveal little, risk even less lest I fail and fall under your judgment. If I imagine God or you to be benevolent and fair, then I am free to take the risk of being open and vulnerable, indeed, to be as loving and just as I perceive God and you to be.

What we imagine, we reflect. What we reflect, we will be and do, think and feel, intend and act.

If this is true – and I believe it is! – then the moral of this parable is this: Resist and reject fear. Risk faith and trust in our interactions with God and others, for there is truest freedom.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

Footnotes:

(1) 1 Corinthians 12

(2) 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 is the day’s appointed epistle reading.

get ready!

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

“Keep awake…for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Jesus, identifying his ministry, identifying himself with the coming of the kingdom of heaven, symbolized by a wedding banquet, tells a parable about bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Him! Some are ready and invited to the feast. Others are not and are left out.

Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Reflecting on this story, I, as one who came of age in the 1960s, recall the words of a song of the late, great Curtis Mayfield:

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.[1]

A train’s a-coming. Mayfield’s metaphor for passage to eternity, for which the required readiness is neither the earthly “baggage” of material attainment nor the “ticket” of personal attributes and achievements, but simply, only faith.

This past week, I had a conversation with a dear friend; though I did more listening than talking. Though young (I consider her as a daughter), she’s made what she considers a lifetime of mistakes. In her view, her prospects are unclear and her horizons, what she can see of them, veiled in shadow.

This morning, I step back from the threshold of eternity to focus on this world. This sermon, the fruit of my listening to my friend, is what I want to say, what I will say to her.

This business of readiness is a resonant theme throughout our daily living. We want to be ready. On top of our game. At the peak of our powers. Physically rested. Emotionally stable. Mentally alert. Financially solvent. Conversant with the tasks at hand and confident of having the necessary skills in hand.

I often wish that when we succeed at being ready, accomplishing what we set out to do, proving again our ability, polishing our life’s record of excellence that would be the end of it. But no! Life continues to challenge our readiness, presenting us with ongoing opportunities “to do it again” and, thereby, reminding us of moments when we weren’t ready. Moments that will come again. When confidence falters. When anxiety overwhelms. When we fail.

Whenever that happens, then we know how the foolish bridesmaids felt. Whenever we, as they, showing up with oil in their lamps, offer our well-intentioned best. Whenever we, as they, bringing not enough oil for as long as they had to wait, discover our best is not enough. Whenever we, as they, hear that word of rejection, most painfully spoken when looking in the mirror that reflects our guilt in letting others down and perhaps our shame in seeing again the face of less than our best: “I do not know you!”

Now, I do not know whether any of this registers for or resonates within you. Speaking for myself, manifold have been my experiences of this. Thus, I know and again I declare that life continues to challenge our readiness.

But that can be good news. For as long as life lasts, there are second chances. Therefore, the judgment “I do not know you” on our failures, on us is not final.

To behold in life the possibility, the reality of second chances, whether understood as bestowed by the hand of an ever-loving, ever-forgiving God or offered in each new opportunity or both and more, can give us hope and courage to be in the moment, making the best decisions we can, and living with the consequences without that oft self-imposed burden of having to prove how good and right we and our choices are.

A train always is a-coming. It’s called “second chance.” Readiness is having faith, believing that is so and climbing on board when it comes. So,

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot’s painting portrays the five wise bridesmaids who, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom “became drowsy and slept” (Mathew 25.5), nevertheless, having brought more than sufficient oil, have their lamps lit. I assume that Tissot, in not depicting the five foolish bridesmaids, therefore not following the flow of the parable, wished to infer that they had departed to buy oil for their lamps.

Footnote:

[1] From the song, People Get Ready (1965); words and music by Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999)

a prayer for a breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday

Lord, my body’s weary, but I didn’t sleep well last night or the night before last night or the night before the night before last night. Rather, hour after hour, through teary eyes, I stared above, watching ambient light dance across the ceiling, but really, trying to see…trying to find You…

For my weariness and teariness, Lord, are conditions, disorders, now, seemingly chronic, begotten of my feeling about, fretting over situations in this world. This world that Your Father made and gave into human care. This world that Your Father sent You to save. This world, it’s clear to me, for which we humans have not cared very well. This world where it’s sometimes unclear to me where I must look (having longed, yet failed) to see evidences of Your salvation.

This past Sunday, Lord (though I know You know), twenty-six of Your disciples, gathered in Your Name, were shot to death, half of them children, Lord, and twenty more wounded. I remember Your word about those Galileans who, when offering ritual sacrifice to Your Father, were slain on the order of Pontius Pilate.[1] So, yes, Lord, I know that to gather in worship, whether in a Baptist church in Texas, the temple in Jerusalem, or anywhere is no bulwark of safety from violence wrought by human will, whether at the hand of a lone gunman, at the point of a soldier’s spear, or by any other means. Yet, Lord, their murders, any murders, all murders grieve my soul.

So, today, Lord, after sleepless Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, on this breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday, I, weary and teary, feeling…being lost, am trying to find You. Yet, Lord, even…especially amid my weariness and teariness, I have faith in You and Your Love. I remember Your parable about having a hundred sheep, losing one, and leaving the ninety-nine to go in search for that wandering one.[2] Lord, I’ve often wondered about this. It doesn’t make sense to me for You to do that. But, then again, my faith doesn’t make sense, for it (as is true of its object; that’d be You, Lord!) is beyond the fullest, even faintest comprehension of my reason. So, Lord, though it makes no sense, in faith in You and Your Love, please, I pray You, come find me.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 13.1

[2] Luke 15.3-7

you’re in good hands with All…

(not state,[1] but rather) Souls – a personal reflection post-All Souls’ Day, November 2, 2017

In this recent annual 3-day cycle of All Hallow’s Eve (better known in common parlance as Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, I, as a Christian – and without the slightest disparagement of any other faith tradition or spiritual custom – have been put greatly in mind of those, commemorated by this last observance, who have died in the faith of Jesus as Lord.

O’er two millennia, some of these, whom Revelation refers to as having “died in the Lord”,[2] verily, a tiny few, are personally known to me and a few more only by historical record and reputation, and, clearly, most not at all. Nevertheless, perhaps it is my daily increasing awareness of my aging and, thus, my mortality that sharpens my focus on the inexorable journey’s end of all who dwell in this world: death. In this deepening recognition, the Spirit of God floods, as life’s blood, my heart with these words: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.[3]

This late 1st century writer, seeking to bolster the determination and dedication of Christians living in Jerusalem and under persecution, recalls the examples of those, Hebrew heroes and heroines, who lived and died with faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”[4] – among them, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites in their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their trek to the Promised Land, the judges, David, and Samuel. As the ongoing arc of the epistle extends through and beyond any given historical era and as long as time in this world lasts, it is reasonable, indeed, a testament of conviction to expand and include in the “great cloud of witnesses” all who lived and died in faith.

saints (a great cloud of witnesses), Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

I find this a momentous thought – one that grants me the comfort of encouragement, especially in moments of trial and tribulation when life’s only surety seems to be (and, as it seems, so it is) struggle – that all who have gone before me:

  • wait for my eventual arrival that where they dwell in light eternal, there I will be and
  • watch me in my life’s journey and
  • watch over me, fretting over my failures and praying for my progress and, in all things,
  • willing me to carry on!

 

Illustration: Saints, Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Footnotes:

[1] Since the 1950s, You’re in good hands with Allstate has been that insurance company’s reigning slogan expressing a commitment to customers’ wellbeing.

[2] Revelation 14.13

[3] The Epistle to the Hebrews 12.1-2a

[4] Hebrews 11.1

a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”

Incredible!

This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.

 

Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

saving faith

a sermon, based on Matthew 14.22-33, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Peter sinking beneath the waves is us. For who among us has not known of a time and, as we live, again will know times when we, at the cruel hand of whate’er the cause, are immersed in onrushing waves of anxiety or fear? And who among us, at such grave moments, as Peter, has not cried out, with whate’er the words that burst from our burdened breasts, “Lord, save me!”?

For me, at this very instant, I am stricken, sickened by what has transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all that it says, screams to me about our unresolved American problem about racial superiority and, the truth be more widely told, our American problem about human supremacy of any kind that in its alway deadly ways demeans “the other” as a lesser form of humanity, and, therefore, as all this exists, insidiously, virulently, and brazenly out in the open, our American phobia about the universal equality of all people.

And all this painfully, tragically reminding us that in this life, though, yes, comforted by the joys of sunlit days and starry nights in the blessed fellowship of family and friends with strength of purpose and goodly labor at hand, sorrow is an ever-equal companion; perhaps more than the equal of joy for those among us who daily wrestle with generational cultural, racial, socio-economic deprivations difficult, perhaps impossible to overcome. And, in either case, for them or for us, when immersed in the waves, how many of us most of the time or even once had Peter’s experience of a savior walking across the water, lifting us, saving us from the peril of drowning?

If we haven’t or don’t know of anyone who has, then what more do we make, can we make of this story than a fanciful, ghostly tale? At best, it is a metaphor, a symbol of a common human, though oft vain hope for supernatural rescue from worldly trial and tribulation. Therefore, even at best, it is hardly a worthy foundation for our faith, which is the subject at the heart of the story.

And here’s the irony. Jesus, the miracle-worker, yes, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise. Yet, before inaugurating his ministry, Jesus spurned the temptation of the devil to leap from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that he was the Son of God, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”,[1] therefore, rejecting miracles as the basis of faith. Rather faith – assurance, confidence, trust – in the presence and benevolence of God, oft in the face of life’s contrary evidence, is the miracle.

This is the faith, however small, unformed and unfocused, that led Peter to test himself: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus, as I imagine him, delighted, thrilled that one of his disciples would dare risk a bold, uninhibited literal leap of faith, said, “Come.” Yet, straightway, Peter, the salt spray spattering his face, the wind tearing through his hair, took his eyes off Jesus. Beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reached out and rescued him.

An olden hymn comes to mind:

O love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

that in thine ocean depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.[2]

These words mirror this story. Jesus does not promise nor does our faith in Jesus profess that the storms of life, whether in Charlottesville or anywhere else, will not threaten us, for they do and will; that trial and tribulation will not darken our door, for they do and will; that death to this life in this world will not befall us, for it will. Jesus, in taking our flesh and in his life, death, and resurrection, does promise and our faith does profess that he who is greater than the winds and the waves, greater than trial and tribulation, greater than our anxiety and fear, greater than death reaches out and holds us forever in his saving hands.

 

Illustration: Jesus saving Peter from sinking, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.5-7

[2] From the hymn, verse 1, O love that wilt not let me go (1882); words by George Matheson (1842-1906), Scottish minister, poet, and hymn writer.